Although the Angels have seen their fair share of success since their World Series victory ten seasons ago, one constant for the squad has been the lackluster production at the catcher’s position. The last catcher to impress for the team has to be Mike Napoli and ever since his departure, the franchise has gone through a myriad of replacements, each seemingly incomplete in what they brought to the roster. The names range from cringe inducing names such as Josh Paul and Jeff Mathis to the current combination of Bobby Wilson and John Hester, with recent offseason acquisition Chris Iannetta on the Disabled List due to a wrist injury. Although things have certainly gotten better for the position since last season and many seasons before it, there is an overwhelming feeling amongst the team’s fans that the position could provide a lot more pop when it comes to hitting the baseball. That side of thinking almost always leads to the twenty four year old catching prospect that is Hank Conger.
Born Hyun Choi Conger, the slugger has had some experience in the big leagues, totaling 72 games over three seasons and also, spending additional time in single A and triple A ball as well. He was drafted out of Huntington Beach High School in 2006 with the 25th pick in the draft and ever since then, his eventual permanent call-up to the majors has been highly anticipated. Unfortunately for Conger and not surprising due to the usual progression of prospects (After all, Angels All-Star Mike Trout didn’t play to his potential in his first call-up to the Majors, hitting .220 and only participating in 40 games during the 2011 season), he’s only hit .205 for his career and his WAR has been below 1.0 for each of his stints in The Show. Still, there has been a widely agreed upon opinion that Conger has the potential to save the catching position and add another valuable piece to an already formidable lineup.
Currently, the catchers on the big league roster are Bobby Wilson and another new addition in 2012, John Hester. Each man has been dangerously close to hitting under .200 and if you look farther into the statistics, the facts there are rather disappointing. Wilson, who has been in the organization since 2006, only has a WAR of 0.4, a .214 batting average and a single home run in the 50 games he has been involved in so far this season. With Hester, he has a WAR of 0.1, a .217 batting average and three home runs to his name. Where the two differ though is their UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, a sabermetric tool to show how much better or worse a player is at fielding their position over what would be classified as an “average” player), which shows a rating of 2.9 for Wilson and a -1.9 for Hester. When it comes down to it, it’s safe to say that Wilson does have a reason to be on the roster with his above average defense at an extremely important position.
That leaves Chris Iannetta (Acquired in the offseason from the Colorado Rockies for young starting pitcher Tyler Chatwood) and Hank Conger to fill the position of catcher, whether it be as a starter or a valuable backup. Although Iannetta has nearly six years of major league experience and was a welcome addition to the team after the era of Jeff Mathis, I believe that the Angels would be wise to give Hank Conger more time in the majors, maybe even in Iannetta’s spot. Currently going through a rehab assignment in AAA, the veteran is scheduled to be back on the big league roster by the end of the week and it might not be much of the change from the usual. He’ll be returning after getting a fracture in his right wrist and its reason to worry, as he wasn’t exactly hitting the ball with gusto, even before the injury. Before he was put on the Disabled List, he was hitting .197 with a 0.3 WAR and a -0.3 UZR, basically playing well below average with the bat and just about average with the glove. Things could be much worse with Iannetta but still, Conger could very well be the missing piece to the loaded batting order the Angels have put out this season.
Conger has been a fan favorite seemingly ever since he was drafted and his potential is extremely high. He’s a switch hitting catcher and while that’s a nice novelty to have, he’s also hit right around .300 every time he’s been in the minor leagues, usually AAA ball. He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of power but when you look over the rest of the roster throughout the organization, you can’t help but feel that he’s worth a shot, a shot that could propel the Angels to catch up with the Texas Rangers, owners of a 5 game lead in the AL West as of press time. The key word here is potential and with a catcher of Conger’s talent and age, I believe he should get another shot to be an everyday contributor to this playoff hopeful. Conger’s main weakness has been his ability or lack thereof, to throw out opposing would be base stealers. This weakness has gotten other talented catchers to have their playing time limited (Mike Napoli anyone?) and in Napoli’s case, to be traded away from the team before last season. Conger’s UZR is right around the league average and he certainly hasn’t proved much with the bat in the short stints he’s had in the big leagues.
Still, with the potential he’s shown in the biggest level before the big leagues, he’s worth a shot, as either an everyday player for the future or possibly trade bait for a team in need of help at catcher. Even if he was to hit below his minor league average in a full first season on the team (Let’s look at the worst case scenario and say he hits around .260), he would still be an above average replacement for all of the catchers that have been on the squad this season. Keep in mind also, he should get better with more major league experience, look at Mike Trout and the season he’s having. I’m certainly not comparing the two (That’s like comparing Jack Daniels to Zima, well, something along those lines. Each drink has their respective fans but they’re different drinks) but there’s a lot of upside to him while you know what you’re getting with Wilson, Hester and Iannetta. With his age, there’s no reason to believe that he could become an average fielder or even above average under the tutelage of Angels skipper Mike Scioscia, given the time to not worry about another impending demotion to minor league ball. Scioscia has already made a mistake with Mike Napoli and it would be a shame to see the same done to Conger.
With the help of a former brilliant defensive minding catcher in Scioscia, some additional focus on all sides of the ball and some trust put in the young prospect, Hank Conger may be the Angels catcher of the future and hopefully, the present. All he needs is an extended vote of confidence from the organization and from there; the catcher’s spot in the batting order may not resemble a National League team’s pitchers spot after all. Even with the potential, he may be thrown in a trade for a starting pitcher, possibly Tampa Bay’s James Shields, hopefully that is not the case but he’s been a regular of the rumor mill for years so I would bet the house on Conger sticking around. Time will only tell but with his talent, bright and exciting times may be upon the organization and the young catcher’s career.